ESPN ‘Tweets’ Fans To Enhance NCAA Women’s Tournament Coverage

By Carolyn Braff

The NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament is every bit as challenging a production as the men’s — when audience development is taken into account, perhaps even more so. With 16 host sites in the first round and five mobile providers on the road to the Final Four, ESPN is presenting this year’s women’s tournament with all the fanfare given to the men, with some extra “tweets” thrown in for good measure.

Double the Fun
In an effort to bring larger crowds to the arenas hosting the opening rounds of the tournament, the NCAA this year expanded the number of host sites from eight to 16, requiring ESPN to double its production personnel.

“It was challenging trying to find 16 production crews to go out there and do all these games,” says Tina Thornton, senior coordinating producer of remote production for ESPN. “With the 16 sites, it was really more challenging in preparation versus going through the motions.”

Using the Whip
The first and second rounds are produced entirely in standard-definition, as ESPN uses a whip-around style to show the best game to viewers in 90% of the county.

“Unfortunately, with 16 sites and four games coming in at once,” Thornton explains, “we don’t have the ability to send out four separate HD feeds at the same time, so the first and second rounds are not in HD at all.”

Instead, by putting SD feeds on ESPNHD and ESPN2HD, the network can show up to four games within one telecast window. While home markets of the competing teams see their team’s game in its entirety, that game may be on the SD channel because the national feed is hosted on the HD channel.

“Our HD service provides the whip-around, which is the national feed all the time, whereas the SD service can provide your local market,” Thornton says. “Now that there are more people with HD sets out there, sometimes it’s hard to tell UConn fans to switch back to the SD channel to catch the 40-point UConn blowout. For the majority of the country, we give what we feel is the best action at any point in time.”

Starting with the regional semifinal round, every game is produced in HD.

Same Show, New Switch
Five mobile providers are lending their services along the road to the Final Four — Corplex, Game Creek, Mira Mobile, NEP, and NCP. NEP Supershooter 25 supports the Final Four production from St. Louis, the A and B units handling the game production and the C unit backing the studio production, with a slight twist.

“We are putting a small switcher in the C unit from the game truck that will essentially switch the studio set and the talent from St. Louis,” Thornton says. “We will then feed that live camera cut back to Bristol studios, where they will roll in everything surrounding that show. Normally, we would have a whole truck with studio complement and crew on-site, but we’re looking at ways to be more efficient with that.”

Because the ESPN talent will still be on site in St. Louis, Thornton is confident viewers will not notice the change.

Final Touches
What they will notice, however, is the high-caliber production that ESPN will produce for the Final Four.

“We treat the women’s Final Four like any other big production that we have at ESPN,” Thornton says. “We use an overhead robotic camera and above-the-rim cameras that you see in the men’s game. We’ve added super-mos for this year, and we have a Super Telestrator to make the games feel bigger and add value to the Final Four.”

This season, ESPN is replacing its foul-line extended robotic camera with two sideline extended handhelds. The network asked the NCAA to put two breaks in the courtside tables, so that the handhelds can get better angles from two spots on the floor, rather than having a single camera at midcourt.

All together, for the Final Four production, ESPN relies on 14 Grass Valley LDK 6000 cameras, two Sony HDC3300 SSMO cameras, three Fletcher robots using Panasonic 900 HD cameras, three EVS XT[2] six-channel LSM replay devices, six EVS XT[2] four-channel LSM replay devices, one EVS [IP] Director, four Panasonic DVCPro 1700 decks, two Sony A500 DigiBeta decks, an AVID Nitris D HD edit suite, and a Quantel QEP HD edit suite.

ESPN uses both a Vizrt and a Chyron Duet for graphics generation.

“At times, the Viz can be a little slower,” Thornton says. “In particular for the game of basketball, the Duet is a faster machine for us and still looks nice. We’ll end up doing our big-picture animations off of the Viz and then our in-game looks that need to go out quicker off of the Duet.”

Tweets To Lure Fans
Taking ESPN’s production to a new platform, analyst Rebecca Lobo is using Twitter to enhance her coverage of the entire tournament. Lobo has been tweeting at http://twitter.com/RebeccaLobo since the SEC tournament, and now that she has found her voice — and more than 3,500 followers — she is able to communicate with fans in a brand-new way.

“The whole reason behind this was, let’s generate something unique for Rebecca to do,” Thornton says. “She’s a big name in women’s basketball, a very good writer, and she has a very good relationship with these coaches. Even when she’s working as an analyst, she’s been able to tweet during breaks.

“We’re hopeful,” Thornton adds, “that she’s hitting maybe not a new audience but an audience that has a real interest in learning more about the game and really following in a different way than anybody’s been followed from a reporter perspective.”

With the tournament available on ESPN’s three TV networks, as well as ESPN360.com, ESPN Mobile TV, and ESPN Full Court, Lobo’s Twitter experiment gives ESPN yet another platform on which to reach sports fans, which is all the more pertinent in growing a sport like women’s basketball.